Carol Guess is a writer and an associate professor of English at Western Washington University. She also teaches classes in queer studies. She is the author of several novels, collections of poetry, and a memoir. Her most recent collection of poems, Tinderbox Lawn, was released in October 2008. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.
This interview was conducted in June 2008.
Jory Mickelson: When did you begin writing and what was your first publication?
Carol Guess: I started writing when I was nine or ten years old. I wanted to write for the magazines that I read, like Cricket and later Seventeen. My first publication was in Cricket—a short story.
JM: What genres do you write in and how do they differ from one another for you?
CG: I write fiction, poetry, essays and creative nonfiction. I think about genres in matters of time. I like writing novels, but teaching takes time. I moved into poetry when I started teaching. My new book represents a hybrid of the novel and poetic forms. Each poem functions separately, but as a whole they act as a fragmented sort of novel.
JM: Who informs your work? Whose work do you go back to repeatedly?
CG: Donald Revell, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein and Richard Siken influence me. I come back to Wallace Stephens again and again. I also read a lot of Renaissance poetry. I started out studying Renaissance drama in college. Carole Maso is a fiction writer who writes a hybrid of fiction with nonfiction in fragments. I keep returning to her work. Also, Carl Phillips.
JM: You were hired by Western Washington University to teach creative writing, but you also teach queer studies classes?
CG: I started out teaching five creative writing classes and one queer studies class. Two years ago, I began teaching half time, so now I teach two writing classes and one queer studies class every year. I am the queer studies advisor. When I was hired, I made it clear that teaching queer studies was something that I wanted to do. It was important to me coming to Western from the job that I left. I never took classes in queer studies when I was in school, so I am inventing them. I had to translate my own experiences into academic courses.
JM: Do you feel that your sexuality creates limitations or opportunities in your writing? Academically?
CG: Being a lesbian has given me an outsider’s perspective as a writer. This is a positive thing; it gives me an opportunity to see things in new ways. Academically, it can be an obstacle. Queer studies isn’t always seen as an accepted area of inquiry.
JM: Is queer studies a vocation then?
CG: Queer studies is a calling. I enjoy teaching those classes the most. The political situation for queer people has improved enormously in the decade that I have taught at Western. But there is still a long way to go. Teaching these classes is a form of activism.
JM: Tell me more about your forthcoming book, Tinderbox Lawn. How did it come about?
CG: The book is a collection of prose poetry where each poem is meant to stand on its own. As a whole, the poems have a narrative arc. It is set in Seattle and Bellingham. The issues or themes presented in the book are the tension between urban and rural life, as well as those in personal relationships. Tinderbox Lawn features a relationship between two women, but it is more about two people falling in love and falling out of love. There are a few references about the war on terror, but it isn’t a book about politics. In a way, the war on terror is the background. It becomes a static the lovers are always listening to.
I finished a book of poems in 2004. After that was published, I kept writing. I generated a bunch of material, but it was all over the place—essays, fiction, poems. Part of writing Tinderbox Lawn was sorting through hundreds of pages of work and trying to decide what it would be. I began to see small blocks of text that fit together and started paring the material down.
JM: How much of your own identity resides in your new book?
CG: It started from autobiographical material and then blurred into fiction. The identity of the lyric “I” of the poems became a fictional character. The “You” is definitely fictional.
JM: Do you find yourself categorized in certain ways as a writer by being a woman and a lesbian?
CG: I have been pegged as a “woman writer” and a “lesbian writer.” If this promotes someone to pick up my work, then it’s a positive. If not, that is a shame. With this book, I don’t feel that these categories apply. I wrote this to express a feeling, falling in and out of love. This is something that everyone has experienced. The categories of woman and lesbian still apply commercially and as a writer, I have to think about that.
JM: Where do you see GLBT literature going? What about queer publishing and the market place for queer writing?
CG: I think that queer literature is at a turning point. Queer writers and queer culture is being assimilated. The category of queer literature is very permeable now. Queer writers don’t see themselves pegged as such and heterosexual writers can pick up queer themes. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a broadening of readership for queer writing, which is what I would like to see.
JM: What is your view of “post-queer” literature?
CG: We aren’t post-queer yet. We aren’t even post-gay.
JM: So what’s next for you? What are you currently working on?
CG: That is a great question! I am working on a new book of prose poems. It has some of the same concerns as Tinderbox Lawn, but the political themes are stronger. The new work looks at the war in Iraq and government surveillance. Specifically, it focuses on how constant surveillance impacts our personal relationships.